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The exams catastrophe: 16 questions that must still be answered

  • 2 September 2020
  • By Dennis Sherwood

This blog is the latest in a series by Dennis Sherwood, who has been tracking the 2020 results fiasco for HEPI.

On Wednesday 10 June 2020, Dr Michelle Meadows, Ofqual’s Executive Director for Strategy, Risk and Research, and Sally Collier, at that time, but no longer, Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, appeared before the Education Select Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon MP. Given what we know now, the transcript makes interesting reading

A few weeks later, on 11 July, the Select Committee published their report, Getting the grades they’ve earned. Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades – a title whose irony is evident only now that the ‘calculated’ grades have been scrapped.

Today, Wednesday 2 September, the Select Committee convenes again, with Dr Meadows present once more, this time accompanied by Ofqual’s Chair, Roger Taylor, Executive Director for General Qualifications, Julie Swan, and newly (re-)appointed Acting Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey.

Many people have been – and continue to be – damaged by this year’s catastrophe, and the Committee could well spend its time considering specific cases. Those are important, and of course critical to the individuals concerned. There are, however, many fundamental issues that still remain murky and unresolved.  This morning’s meeting therefore provides an important opportunity to illuminate these dark corners, and so here are some key questions that I think demand answers.

The algorithm

1. Who, specifically, took the decision to design and build a (very complex) algorithm to predict every grade distribution for every subject in every school in the country, rather than, for example, use a (much simpler) method to ‘sense-check’ schools’ submissions? This was the fundamental error of judgement from which all else followed. 

2. When was this decision taken?  In Gavin Williamson’s statement of 20 March that Ofqual will ‘…produce a calculated grade for each student…’, does the explicit reference to ‘a calculated grade’ suggest that the decision to follow the ‘algorithmic’ approach had already been taken, before 20 March?  

3. What other approaches were suggested, and why were they rejected? What evidence is there of the corresponding discussions? 

4. Who, specifically, designed the algorithm? Who wrote the corresponding computer code? Was there any involvement of individuals not fully employed by Ofqual or the exam boards? In which case who, in what capacities, and at what cost?

Were schools misled?

5. Why were schools asked for Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs), when they were known, from the outset, to be superfluous? The answer ‘because CAGs were needed for “small” cohorts’ is interesting in that it undermines the use of the algorithm: if teachers’ judgements are acceptable for ‘small’ cohorts, why not for ‘large’ ones too?

6. Given that schools were asked for CAGs, why were they denied the opportunity, at the same time, to provide evidence for ‘outliers’ that did not fit historic patterns? 

7. Why was Ofqual’s ‘Guidance’ not clearer, more specific and more honest about what was actually happening? Did Ofqual set out, intentionally, to mislead? In particular, why were schools placed in the impossible position of being asked to meet two mutually contradictory requirements simultaneously? They were: i) to give a ‘realistic judgement of the grade each student would have been most likely to get if they had taken their exam(s)’; and ii) to bear in mind that grades would be constrained by the undefined process of ‘statistical standardisation’, which would draw on ‘evidence including expected grade distributions at national level, results in previous years at individual centre level, [and] the prior attainment profile of students at centre level’ – this being widely interpreted as implying ‘no grade inflation’ (as indeed was proven by the A-level results as first awarded on 13 August, and the down-grading of nearly 40% of the A-level CAGs).

8. In short, were teachers set up to fail

How matters evolved

9. On 15 June, FFT Education Datalab published a report, a comment on which includes a statement that ‘approximately 37%’ of GCSE grades might be down-graded. This precedes by some seven weeks the article published in the Guardian on 7 August revealing that ‘nearly 40% of A-level grades submitted by teachers are set to be down-graded’, and was the earliest warning of what was to come. Who at the Department for Education and at Ofqual saw this report? Why were the implications of this warning not heeded? Did no one in authority care that teachers’ judgements were to be discarded to such a great extent?

10. How many of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report of 11 July 2020 were successfully actioned by Ofqual in an appropriate time? And if any were not, why not? What accountability should Ofqual therefore bear?

11. Why, specifically, were so many A-level and AS CAGs down-graded? How many GCSE CAGs would have been downgraded had the u-turn of 17 August not taken place? How many of all these were the result of ‘gaming’? How many were the result of ‘over-optimism’? How many were simply the result of the need to round fractions to whole numbers, or attributable to year-on-year variability, in relation to which Ofqual failed to give precise instructions?

Resolving the still-present injustice

12. Given the current unresolved injustices, what needs to happen now to allow those who followed the implied rule of ‘no grade inflation’ to appeal against CAGs that were ‘internally moderated’ downwards, against teachers’ better judgement?

Looking ahead

13. Looking ahead to the return of exams, in whatever form, and whenever they might take place, can Ofqual please explain, precisely, what is meant by their statement of 11 August 2019 that ‘more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a candidate’s performance’? What are the corresponding implications

14. Since the same statement further confirms that ‘This is not new, the issue has existed as long as qualifications have been marked and graded’, why has the ‘issue’ of unreliable grades not been long since resolved? Especially since the fundamental problem is not ‘marking error’ but a failure of the policy used to determine grades from marks

15. Since Ofqual’s own research shows that, over each of the last several years, on average, about 1 grade in every 4 awarded has been ‘wrong’, why does Ofqual’s recently published Corporate Plan 2020-21 not identify as a key action ensuring ‘all exam grades are reliable and trustworthy’?

16. Overall, and looking not just at this year’s fiasco but over the whole decade of Ofqual’s existence, to what extent has Ofqual successfully fulfilled its statutory obligation, as defined by Section 22 of the Education Act 2011 ‘to secure that regulated qualifications give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding…’?


  1. Dave Smith says:

    From the start, I had an unusual insight into the teacher’s thinking …which caused my concerns about the process.
    I’ll have to leave a fake name as I don’t want to get my child’s teacher into trouble. I made my kid X attend school right up to the last day, 20th March. By then there were few students left attending. That day X was alone with teacher Y, they get along well. At this stage, schools knew they would need to create CAG’s but had no further info – they had also NOT been told to keep the CAG’s secret. That instruction was issued the following week.

    I knew, after a discussion with staff earlier in the week, that they were planning to get a head start on the CAG’s and do what they could before closure.

    While alone that Friday, Y told X that the CAG had been decided for “subject 1” of X’s A levels. It was B. X thought Y was joking as X was an A student. X asked what was going on.

    Y explained that the school had been advised that the exam board would be sending in staff over the summer to check the CAG’s. The process would involve the written evidence for one student in each group being checked thoroughly to ensure it was correct. If found to be over estimated, the whole class would have their grades reduced by the same amount as the “sample” student.
    So, the reason X had to be given B was that there were only 3 students in subject 1 so teacher feared my child would be the “random” choice for checking due to being the top performer. The in-school records when checked offered no proof of an A grade because X had done badly on the essay questions in the mock. So X had to accept a B to avoid the risk of the other students being downgraded. X’s uni offer was AAA… such was the fear of this external assessment that staff felt they had to deprive X of a place at Oxford University.

    Fortunately, in the end I was able to prove that the mock had been unreliable due to the school forgetting to supply X with a laptop for the essay questions. So the grade was upped to A before submission of the CAG’s. It was just very lucky that X gained that info from the teacher!

  2. Dave – what a story!

    A happy ending; and I trust the place at Oxford has been secured. But had you not identified the missing laptop…

    To me, the chilling words are “…the school had been advised…”, and the implied blackmail that “…the whole class would have their grades reduced…”.

    How widely known is this story? What was the source of the ‘advice’? And how many others have similar stories – but perhaps have been less fortunate?

  3. Tania says:

    A friend of mine teaches at a school which only has Y7-11. Their process for Geography was that:

    – SLT went through the historic results and produced what they considered to be an acceptable grade distribution.

    – They then used the mocks to map students onto that distribution.

    – Results of that process were passed to subject teachers who could move students within the rankings, but not change the grade of any student.

    I don’t know whether the teachers challenged the grades they had been allocated, my friend was not aware of any such challenges. I also don’t know whether it was different for subjects with NEAs – I know that some schools ignored NEAs which is awful for the students who chose subjects because they were good at the NEA elements.

    You then see some schools (particularly private) where results clearly show that there was no reference to previous years. Maybe they were already thinking about the parents marching up to challenge CAGs…..

  4. Elsie says:

    My son’s grades at a large state sixth form college were I’m pretty sure ‘internally moderated’ downwards, with the result that he lost his university place. I can think of no other explanation for a UCAS A* prediction and A* Y12 mock becoming CAG A (and he was not the only one ‘downgraded’). The university rejected him immediately, no dialogue. There seems to be no recourse for this group of students. He is devastated. The school are not communicating with students or parents about how they produced this grade and I expect will not offer any tuition for October retakes. So I’m grateful for someone raising the ‘still present injustice’ of CAGs – it has not been a level playing field for all, there is no right of appeal and the ‘losers’ are going to be competing for university places next year against students who may have been differently assessed.

  5. Huy Duong says:

    Ofqual made a lot of mistakes and resulted in a lot of injustice this year. Some of the injustice was removed by the U-turn, but not all. One of the fundamental mistakes at it made was to claim that this year’s grades would have the same currency a previous years’. Clearly they cannot have the same currency. Some Oxford colleges (Worcester being the first one) took the view that there is no information from this year’s grades that can justify rejecting a student to whom it has made an offer. Unfortunately, Ofqual’s false claim led some universities to rejecting some students on the basis of grades that might or might not be valid.
    What Ofqual should have done right at the start was to recognise that this year’s grades are not equivalent to previous years, and award, say, 5 grades numbered 5 to 1 for A levels, and 6 grades, A* to E for GCSE. That would go toward reflecting the uncertainty and the the inequivalency.
    Also, the DfE was incompetent and negligent in this. At the start, it asked the universities to be flexible, didn’t remove the student number cap right to the end, and it didn’t allow the universities to turn the offers into unconditional ones. Before the U-turn, quite a few students from my son’s school got rejected by their universities and colleges.
    Then all those two organisations could only offer apologies that are questionable in sincerity.

  6. Paula says:

    I agree. We were so lucky that our son was an Oxford offer holder. He was accepted on results day. His friend got AAAB and was rejected by both Warwick & Durham immediately. He had to go through clearing on results day.
    He is sticking with the uni that gave him the clearing place.

  7. Maha says:

    I don’t know whether the teachers challenged the grades they had been allocated, my friend was not aware of any such challenges. I also don’t know whether it was different for subjects with NEAs – I know that some schools ignored NEAs which is awful for the students who chose subjects because they were good at the NEA elements.

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